In theory, technology should increase both work flexibility and productivity, but it is also responsible for procrastination and a major threat to people’s work-life balance.
In fact, much of the recent debate about work-life imbalance is concerned with our relationship with technology, in particular our inability to disconnect or go offline.
For example, in the U.S. almost 50% of working adults report being “hooked” on email, which is estimated to cost the nation's economy at least $900 billion a year in productivity loss. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, professionals spend 28% of their work time reading or answering emails. These statistics explain the international success of bestselling books like The Four Hour Work Week.
Furthermore, even people who manage to keep their email addiction in check are prone to getting hooked on other sites or apps, such as Facebook or Twitter, with a growing number of people trying social media sabbatical, where they detox from these sites for a couple of months or so. Needless to say, our digital excesses may harm not just our productivity but also our personal relationships with others, especially if they demand exclusive attention from the physical world.
So how can we better manage our web-life balance? Here are four practical suggestions you may want to consider:
The “less is more” principle originated from architecture, but it can also be applied to data. Big data is usually defined in terms of the three V's: velocity, volume, and variety. You can do a lot to minimize your data output by keeping the three V’s as low as possible: don’t answer too fast, don’t write too much, and communicate through as few channels as possible so you can centralize the source of information. Remember that communication is self-fulfilling: the less you generate, the less you receive.
Mark Zuckerberg described the Facebook news feed as the modern equivalent of television, and he is probably right. And whereas you cannot carry a TV with you at all times, you always have Facebook (and Twitter, and Instagram, and Tumblr). There is probably no better evidence for the addictive nature of social media than the fact that we are spending as much of our potential offline time on it.
Here are a few old-school activities that may help you enjoy your downtime: read a book, carry a notepad to write your thoughts and ideas, listen to music, or simply observe the physical world around you—it is there for a reason.
The main reason why the Internet competes for attention with the analogue world, is that the analogue world is often quite boring. Indeed, humans are creatures of habit and, despite what we say, we strive to make our environments as safe and predictable as possible.
Then came social media to help us combat the boredom of safety and predictability. But think of situations that are truly exciting: catching up with friends you haven’t seen in ages; going on a new date; visiting places you always wanted to see. In those situations the temptation to go online is minimal. So how about making more of those situations happen?
In a recent study, we identified the key characteristics of people who are really good at managing email overload and tech-related burnout. They tend to be more outgoing, conscientious, and optimistic. They plan ahead and value face-to-face contact with others; they enjoy meeting new people and remain positive and calm under pressure.
Granted, some of these things may be easier to implement than others, but a little bit of self-coaching goes a long way, and the more introverted, emotional, and disorganized you naturally are, the more at risk you are of burning out.
A final point concerns dealing with unreasonable demands from others. And that applies to both work colleagues and personal relationships. For example, a colleague who expects 24-7 responses may be as unreasonable as a boyfriend who expects total switching off during an important work project.
Clearly, other people may contribute a lot to our web-life imbalance and we tend to underestimate just how effective it is to manage others' expectations. It’s worth a try.
—Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, consumer analytics, and talent management. He is a professor of business psychology at University College London (UCL), vice president of research and innovation at Hogan Assessments, and has previously taught at New York University and the London School of Economics.